September 22nd, 1998.

A byte from the Apple tree.

The other day I was chatting to friends about a company that has some great products but in the past has been guilty of some really bad marketing goofs. We were debating the latest marketing campaign and the possible futures for this company. It is looking down the barrel of an industry and a world that are pretty unforgiving of mistakes. The strategy for the companies future is unclear with only a handful of people privy to such information. This company has always been the focus of such speculation though, they are used to being second-guessed, to having their sometimes bizarre decisions questioned by staff, customers, and watchers.

So who am I talking about? It's got to be Apple, right?

Wrong. I am talking about my former employer who I suppose I should allow remaining nameless. If you are from Merseyside the chances are you will have come across them in one form or another. They have two touring 'internet roadshows' going to local libraries throughout the region, they have two permanent centers at Liverpool and Birkenhead and they have recently had their new offices officially opened by Prince Andrew. They are undoubtedly the 'big boys' on campus.

However, big fish in their pond may be, but out in the big wide world, they are still relatively small fry. And now the company is on the verge of having to fly the warmth of the European funded nest that has sheltered it thus far. European funding has provided the sustenance to fatten it up with an endless stream of students and unemployed people providing a workforce that would put a smile on even the most mercenary accountant. However, the party could well be about to come to an abrupt end.

The European cash that has been such a key part in the organization's history is soon to become part of its glorious past. This is not big news in itself, many watchers have known this would be the case for a long time. However, what is interesting is the subject of how exactly the non-funded company plan to continue. They currently offer free websites designed and hosted for local companies, the internet roadshows, free courses for local business and unemployed people, two permanent centers, and various other projects. So the question begs, how can they keep all these going?

The company is headed by a University man who I'll simply call CC. A somewhat rumbly and antisocial figure CC is a recognized and respected master at finding money. He is the reason why they have partnerships with a couple of major IT players. If any other pots of money can be taped he will find them. Playing second fiddle to CC is a person I'll refer to as Ms. Small. An equally characterless pseudo manager, Ms. Small looks after among other things, the staffing. Neither of them is managers though, and in my opinion, for what it's worth, neither of them has the charisma to carry the company into the marketplace where it currently enjoys handheld dominance.

So what will they do without their armbands to help them swim? Surely they will sink straight to the bottom with all the weight they are currently carrying? So the rumor mill says they are looking to slim their operation to face the new era with more muscle than fat.

It is very difficult to fathom the present strategy and where the company plan to go from here. We know that their local hub website, where local businesses can have a free website, will soon no longer be a free service. The company will charge 150 a day for design work and also a fee to host a site. Admittedly these fees are small and still well within reach of local target businesses. However, there is the question of how many companies have seen the worth of their free sites enough to want to pay for the service.

The internet roadshow has shown itself to be a huge success and a possible marketing gem. Management has so far failed to utilize it though, and have instead decided to put all it's marketing efforts into the two permanent centers at Liverpool library and Birkenhead library. However, one has to wonder how many of the target businesses regularly go to Birkenhead of Liverpool library? Sure, they can boast that 5000+ people have visited the Liverpool center, but how many of those 5000+ were the same people regularly visiting, and of that number, just how many have decided to have a website designed by them? How much real revenue are the library centers worth?

There search engine submission tool may at this time be the best free website submission tool, but pretty soon users of the service will be asked to show the color of their money before the work of submitting is done. And as good as it is, it's services are in no way competition for their potential competitors like WebPromote.

The free courses are superb and have doubtlessly changed the path of many people's lives. But surely these would have to stop in a company where profit is now the name of the game? Either that or they would have to charge for the courses. What about the partnerships with the two big I.T companies that support the non-profit nature of this organization, what will happen to them?

All of these questions make for a lengthy conversation over a drink with friends. And just like Apple, we can't even hope to have a real idea of what the hell the powers that be are planning. These are my personal opinions, and others I know have different opinions of course. However, perhaps it should be noted that the companies chief technical man has recently left the fold to join BT, and perhaps even more significant is the announcement that a person I'll call AB, widely recognized as the company number three, is also leaving. Such were the rumblings within the organization when this news was announced that he had to send an e-mail around reassuring employee's that he was not deciding to leave based on information he had learned about the companies future. While this may well be true, it has to inject yet more uncertainty into the future of the company that is fast approaching its first day in school for the big boys.